Walter & his physiotherapist, Vera

Walter Soulliere (right) might not look
like a typical rehab patient.
Physiotherapist Vera Fung coaches
Soulliere to perform a wrist exercise
as part of his recovery from
an electrical injury.

Recovering from a shock to the system

It takes seconds for a bolt of electricity to run through someone's body. It takes months or even years to fully recover.

"You can't tell just by looking at a patient what some of the complex, life-altering effects of electrical injuries are," says John Cho, occupational therapist and outpatient clinical coordinator at St. John's Rehab.

After an electrical injury, people might look just fine on the outside. But, there's much more going on underneath the surface.

Some are recovering from visible injuries such as burns or fractures, but may also be experiencing neurological dysfunctions like muscle twitching, weakness or a loss of sensation. They may have difficulty doing simple things like walking, using everyday tools or workplace equipment, or even listening, remembering, and explaining their symptoms.

Patients are often challenged or misunderstood by family, co-workers, insurers and employers. Electrical injuries are not immediately visible, they don't show up on traditional tests and no two cases are alike. Each person presents different symptoms which arise unpredictably.

Some patients even go back to work, confused and unable to understand what's going on inside their own bodies.

New issues that show up weeks or months later may not be attributed back to the electrical accident. This reduces the chance that patients will see electrical injury specialists who can provide the help they need.

"The best thing for anyone who has been in an electrical contact accident is early intervention," says Dr. Joel Fish, St. John's Rehab's Chief Medical Officer and the Medical Director for the burn rehab program. "A specialized, comprehensive assessment by a multidisciplinary team will result in a plan of care that minimizes future complications, such as permanent disability or other long-term effects."

The team at St. John's Rehab works together to provide comprehensive, customized assessment and treatment for these invisible and unpredictable injuries.

A physiotherapist may work with a patient to regain the strength it takes to open a clenched fist. An occupational therapist will help the same patient learn to hold a pencil to write or a fork to eat. A psychologist will help the person overcome sleep disturbance, depression, anxiety and help them stay motivated to participate in rehabilitation.

The Back on Track program team also includes nurses, social workers and other health specialists that address the unique and complex rehabilitation needs of each patient. Back on Track provides clients of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) and auto insurers with a range of outpatient rehab services for traumatic injuries.

People from across the country have been assessed and treated at St. John's Rehab since the electrical injury program began in 2003.

Currently, St. John's Rehab at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre is Canada's only specialized facility working clinically and publishing research about electrical injuries. Ongoing research will help develop new therapies that may benefit existing and future patients.

One of the benefits of St. John's Rehab's program is that we can recognize the patterns of symptoms. Patients become more hopeful, learn coping strategies and, when they leave, they have more skills at their disposal.

Instead of explaining what it's like to live with an electrical injury, patients at St. John's Rehab can focus on recovery and returning to their lives.